Fear of Difference is Opposition to Democracy

The United States of America is a nation of immigrants. It is a nation that has wrestled with vicious undercurrents of racism and xenophobia, and has emerged ever more democratic, generally trending toward a more perfect union representing the foundational ideals that were, in the 18th century, so far out of reach, but so necessary as core aspirations. And over time, it is a nation that has become richer, stronger and more democratic, by getting closer to those foundational ideals.

In advocating for the most effective way to form a new democratic nation in Argentina, Juan Bautista Alberdi wrote that Argentina should follow the example of the United States and encourage major waves of immigration, because the resulting society, with a large population, with diverse backgrounds and a commitment to building something new, will make for a more sustainable and democratic republic.

Yet, in the 21st century United States, we are seeing a new fashion of xenophobia, in which the idea that being a “real American” means being opposed to people with different backgrounds or who have found their way here from elsewhere. It is a patently nonsensical assertion that the United States cannot or should not tolerate immigration, diversity or difference.

It is precisely because the United States has not opposed, in the broad trend of its evolving democracy, the integration of ever more new people from ever more diverse backgrounds, that it has evolved to be the most dynamic, vibrant and innovative society in history. There is resilience in diversity, and the openness of American democracy is precisely what makes it a secure and successful, uniquely American democracy.

So much of this is common sense, it’s often shocking when we have to stop and take notice of it, but there are moments in the flow of political events when extremists, partisans and people not resilient enough in their own character, take up the cause of stamping out difference, to comfort themselves, to persuade others or to further a self-interested agenda. At those times, those of us who believe in open democracy have a moral responsibility to respond, and to say: stamping out difference is exactly what democracy cannot do.

We cannot be free, if we persecute; we cannot pursue personal fulfillment and the enrichment of our own character or of the lives of those close to us, if we bar others from doing so; true democratic freedom precludes robbing others of theirs. This was well understood by the founders of the American system of democratic government: they knew that if elites, feudal hierarchies, those who buy and sell people, or even the mass majority, were to rule with impunity, democracy would crumble under the weight of the injustice.

We often hear about the need to protect the rights of hardliners and fundamentalists who want to express their hatred for one or another group, because freedom of speech is enshrined in the First Amendment to our Constitution. And indeed, it is so. But does it make any sense that we who do not live in fear of diversity, human liberty and equality, should pretend for the comfort of less open neighbors that somehow it is only they, those whose views unnerve sensible democrats, who enjoy those fundamental freedoms?

No matter how brash or how aggressive one’s clamoring about loving the flag and loving the nation, none of the freedoms of this country are exclusively the province or the privilege of any one group. Being patriotic cannot, in the United States of America, be compatible with exclusion, prejudice, disdain or the promotion of fear and bias. Only false patriots, false prophets, use malicious rhetoric to silence or intimidate those they don’t or won’t understand.

I have never been registered as a member of any party. I have never felt that any one facet of my existence so defines me that I should be bound to the resulting imagery or definitions in all areas of my life. And I count that a great privilege, when compared to so many people who have lived on this Earth before us.

I recognize that my freedom to be free of any one defining tribal grouping, to be free of any one limiting and defining association, is the result of my enjoying the benefits of a free society, a democratic system in which people are not judged by religion, race, ethnicity, origin, ideology or culture alone. At least, not by the high standards of our laws and of what is best in us.

So I cannot limit others to such confining and demeaning definitions. I have to give up the false “freedom” of reflexively judging or excluding others as less than fully deserving of basic moral consideration, and I have to do the work of learning something about the reality of a person, of a person’s world and character, before judging how to react to that person.

Visual cues, point of origin, language, profession, party or church affiliation, and race, are all poor guides for judging the deep character of a person. If we are to be the best of what we aspire to be, the best society we can be, a true democracy where the soaring language of our most cherished documents and oratory has real meaning, then we must remember that citizenship is partly this: it is in part the vow that we will not abandon what is human in our fellow human beings.

Fear of difference is opposition to democracy. It is a temptation, and a dark and perilous one. But we are fortunate to have the freedom that not only recognize that it is so, but to say openly that it is so. We are free to say that we established this social contract, this democratic republic, precisely so that no one would have to live in fear of being told that they were to be robbed of dignity or freedom, that only when genuine and demonstrable justice would demand such constraints as punishment, and due process were deployed, could we ever stray from that pledge.

If after thousands of years of authoritarian rule, the people of Egypt can conquer fear… if in our own best moments, in the face of grave crisis, we held together in the knowledge that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”… if we believe that all people are created equal, endowed with universal, inalienable rights, and that there is something sacred about that… then we should celebrate our diversity, our openness, and the resilience, the power, and the freedom that being that way brings to our great experiment in human liberty.

2 responses to Fear of Difference is Opposition to Democracy

  1. J.E. Robertson

    In response to those who seem intent on distorting and undermining our public discourse in order to suggest that what is true is not true:

    Barack Obama is the president of the United States. He won an historic landslide victory, more than 10 million more votes than any previous presidential candidate ever received. (Reagan won 54.455 million, in 1984; Bush won 59.119 million, in 2004; Obama won 69,456,897 votes in 2008 [pdf].) He built the largest national campaign network ever built, and defeated not one but two of the most seasoned, credible and broadly supported members of the United States Senate.

    He was born in the state of Hawaii, was raised in the state of Hawaii, spent a couple of years in Indonesia, with his Kansan mother, and returned to the US. He has committed his adult career to the promotion and propagation of the core values of the American republic, and is a Constitutional law scholar. His diverse range of experience is not alien to his generation; it is emblematic of the kind of rich, but also deeply American experience of so many millions of people of his generation.

    My Republican grandfather left Indiana, joined the military, fell in love in New Jersey and traveled the world during World War II. I am fortunate that he survived the war and remained in New Jersey, where I was able to be raised to understand both the complicated melting pot of the New York metropolitan area and the rural midwestern values he had grown up with.

    I learned that patriotic Americans must be people of conscience, committed to grappling with the complexities of a world in which people not only do in fact disagree, but are allowed to disagree and take pleasure in the sport of disagreement. We have an adversarial democracy, and difference and distinction are fuel for the engine of an evolving democratic society.

    That we are not all the same, that we are not all of one mind, that we are not limited by tribe or creed or culture or class, makes us a more significant, more resilient, more genuine democracy.

    Barack Obama is president of the United States, and won with an unprecedented popular vote, which speaks volumes about how enlightened, how fair, and how pragmatic our democracy really is. It is an achievement for all of us that such an idealist, such an optimist, such a committed public servant, such a devotee of the American Constitution, can be elected despite historical obstacles to his succeeding in a society that was not always fair to all of its people.

    What I want to see, as an independent voter who demands the best and the most genuine of talents from both major parties, is candidates who are willing to compete in the realm of ideas. That is the signal evidence of a commitment to American democracy: “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind” —as Thomas Jefferson wrote, in the Declaration of Independence— and a willingness to treat the other candidate as being worthy of a thorough public debate, where one’s own ideas are tested and challenged.

    It is not right for political figures to use intimidation or extremist rhetoric to turn the public eye away from the question of whether their own ideas have merit: it is the people who govern by their consent, and every public official has a responsibility to first present a positive case for his or her own leadership.

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